During the cold war, the phrase “balance of power” became unfashionable in liberal circles - and remains so. I never succumbed to that liberal fallacy. I had meant to devote my last post of 2010 to the principle of the golden mean – since I’ve been reminded a couple of times recently about the importance of “balance” in development. First was some work I was doing for a project bid. I had to draft something about building up the training system for civil servants and I remembered some consolidated thoughts on this issue I had drafted a couple of years ago – building on what I had learned from three years setting up a training centre for civil servants in Uzbekistan; 2 years’ work with Kyrgyz municipalities; and a year developing training in Bulgaria to help “the implementation of European norms” (to use the dreadful jargon. Most technical assistance works on the supply side – training trainers and helping establish training institutions. However useful this is, the main factor which will ensure training effectiveness is a clear demand from the organisation in which the “trainees’ work. A Polish friend and colleague on the latter project (Jacek) helped me understand the relevance of “learning outcomes” - and another friend and colleague (Daryoush) and I had developed a diagram which showed that effective training required input from 4 different groups – client, training manager, instructor and learner. Very slowly in the west, power has shifted from the suppliers to the consumers – but the best system is one in which there is a balance of power.
Then there was the thought-provoking start to Henry Mintzberg’s 2000 article on the management of government
“It was not capitalism which triumphed when the Berlin wall fell – it was balance.” the article began – going on to set the “strong private sector, strong public sector and strength in the sectors between” against the lack of balance and of “countervailing power” in the so-called communist societies.
A recent paper from the Compass Think-Tank Time for a new socialism made the point that thinking about the best point of balance between the various sectors shifts cyclically.
Historians like Arthur Schlesinger and theorists like Albert Hirschman have recorded that every thirty years or so, society shifts - essentially, from the public to the private and back again. The grass, after a while, always feels greener on the other side. The late 1940s to the late 1970s was a period of the public, the late ‘70s to now, the private. Now the conditions are right for another turn, to a new common life and the security and freedom it affords, but only if we make it happen by tackling a market that is too free and a state that is too remote.